This week the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) released its report of findings against Lance Armstrong. The purpose of this post is not to go into what Lance did or did not do, or what should or should not be done about his victories given these findings. Yesterday the Fat Cyclist posted a thoughtful take on what happened. (BTW. You should look at Fatties post that I linked to just for the picture at the top of him after 3 continuous days of mtb racing. Priceless.) The purpose of this post is to really talk about where we are at with doping and testing and sanctions and how this might affect you and I, if your or I were to say want to race. Now to all of you who do not ride, but somehow got to this blog today please read on anyway. You might find this interesting. To those of you who luge and got to this blog, but don’t bike race, you might want to read on as well. I think you might find some nuggets or at least questions in here that are worth thinking about.
USADA is a quasi-governmental agency (meaning they are funded in part by the federal government but not officially a part of it) that is in charge of keeping US athletes from doping. Mostly you would associate this with things like the Olympics but they have authority over other sports such as cycling and triathlons.
My one personal experience with USADA to date came when I was officiating the Junior National Luge Competition. USADA was at that event to conduct testing. They had a list of names of athletes they had chosen for testing. Along with those athletes they also randomly selected several athletes for testing. My job that day was to be an escort for USADA (note I did this in my capacity as a luge official, I am not a USADA rep.) My job was to identify the slider when they completed their first run and escort them to the testing area, not allowing them to be alone until they were tested. I found the USADA officials to be very professional. The process was fair and well run from what I saw. I talked with many parents of luge athletes who I knew and they were less flattering about USADA. One told the story about how their child was pulled from his/her high school classroom (during class) by USADA for a drug test. They felt like this was an intrusion and was somewhat humiliating for their child. Think about what it would have been like for you as a teen in school to have someone come to your class to pull you for a drug test. What that must feel like in en environment like that. USADA used to require that athletes give an itinerary of where they were at all times so they could be subject to random testing. Going on a date? Let them know. They might come and get you. Last minute plans? Well if you are not where they think you are when they come to test you, that’s a failed test. This has changed a little bit. Now athletes must tell them where they will be 1 hour of each day. That’s still a fair intrusion, but it is also the part of the price you pay as an Olympic level athlete.
Bike racing has a long and storied history of “performance enhancing” drug use. The most dramatic outcome of doping in biking came in 1967 in the TdF. Tom Simpson died during a mountain stage. He had been taking amphetamines and alchohol (which was widely done at that time) and the combination with the heat of the day killed him. Look, endurance biking is really hard and competitive and people have taken the “win at all costs” thing literally. Lance is just the latest chapter in that history. Heck at this point he is probably not the “latest” chapter at all.
Now you and I will probably never be at that level. I know I won’t. I also know that bike racing is not that important to me that I would be willing to do that. So how does USADA affect me on a personal level? Well here is the thing. When I compete in a race that is sanctioned, I am subject to drug testing by USADA. Any of you who race…did you know that? When you get a racing permit you agree to testing. Even if you just get a day license (like I did for the Willmington race I was in, or for Leadville next year). My fellow lugers. I need to check, but I think that we are also subject to USADA testing at sanctioned events, like the Masters competition (however unlikely that is). Do you realize that? Do you know what medication you are on or what supplements you have taken? They might be banned. And if tested you might be “cheating”. You might be a doper and not even know it. Heck you might not even know that you could be tested.
Is this just silly talk about hypotheticals? Consider this. About a month ago USADA showed up at a mountain bike race in Florida. I was not there but I have second hand knowledge of someone who was, and who was picked to be drug tested. I don’t know precisely what happened but the USADA officials did not communicate with the race director. Instead they began to pull riders at the finish line for testing. When the race director got word he confronted the USADA officials. Some words were exchanged and the police were called in. It turns out that the people who claimed they were from USADA were in fact from USADA (though there was some question as to the validity of their credentials). The USADA people eventually left and it is unclear at this point what the ramifications will be for the athletes who were supposed to be tested (in theory they refused a drug test which is taken as equivalent to failing a test).BTW. If you want to get a sense of the division in biking right now read some of the message boards about this incident.
I talked with the person who is going to be my coach for the next year to prep me for Leadville. He winters in Florida and knows the promoter and one of the athletes involved. He says they are both stand-up people. Of course Levi Leipheimer is by all accounts a stand-up guy, and he has been caught doping as well. So that’s not a good metric to go on. Good people sometimes make poor choices. My coach did say that if USADA showed up at a low level race in Flordia (lots of road racing in the Miami area) they would be able to nail many many sport level (i.e. amateurs like you and me) riders. That makes me really sad. I think its pathetic.
I said that I wasn’t going to talk about Lance in this piece. I do want to use his case as an example though to make a point. In the findings against Lance USADA states that this is a case of a “win at all costs” mentality in the sport. But look at what USADA did. They appointed themselves: sheriff, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. They violated their own “statute of limitations” and went back years past where their time mandate is in pronouncing Lance guilty. And then they claimed that they could strip him of his titles. Does that let Lance off the hook? Hell no. But when you are claiming the moral high ground it is incumbent on you to act in a moral professional way. In many ways the case against Lance showed that USADA is in “win at all costs” mode too. They seem to have a presumed guilty philosophy that rubs this American boy the wrong way. There are no safeguards here to check the impartiality of the process. Maybe they can justify this by saying that if they don’t then they cannot be as affective. Maybe they can justify this by saying that athletes agree to this when they decide to compete. It still feels wrong to me.
Doping is wrong. I want the results to be my legs against yours. I want it to be my heart against yours. Not who has the best chemist working for them. I am deeply troubled that someone would dope to win a sport race, and maybe that is a big part of the problem. But I also want the process to be fair, and I am not sure it is right now. USADA claims to be protecting the integrity of sports and clean athletes. I think for the most part they do, but there is a slope here and they are on it.
And for those of you who race (luge, bike, run, tri) you might just want to find out what USADA can do to you. You might just want to know what your rights are. Cause it would truly stink to be branded a dopper just because you didn’t know the process.